Only 1 per cent of the public considers education to be the most important issue facing Britain today, according to a new poll.
Nearly half of respondents (49 per cent) surveyed in January said the NHS was one of the important issues facing Britain, while 17 per cent saw it as the most important issue, according to the Economist/Ipsos MORI findings.
But only 15 per cited education/schools as one of the important issues – a 3 per cent drop since December – and just 1 per cent viewed it as the most important issue. This was despite a succession of warnings about the state of school finances and the potential impact on pupils’ education.
The findings follow a TES analysis looking at why school cuts are hitting the headlines less frequently than the pressures facing the NHS.
Respondents were asked two questions: “What would you say is the most important issue facing Britain today?” and “What do you see as the main/other issues facing Britain today?”. Their spontaneous, unprompted responses were then noted down.
Apart from the NHS, “the common market/Brexit/the EU/Europe” was the second most popular choice for the most important issue. This was followed by “immigration/immigrants” then “the economy”, “housing” and “unemployment”. These were all more likely than education to be named as an important issue.
Education is a ‘mid-tier issue’
Out of the 10 topics most likely to be mentioned by respondents as being important, “education/schools” was the least likely to be seen as the “most important” issue overall. For the poll, the 970 respondents were chosen as a representative sample of the general population.
Education appeared to be higher on the agenda of Labour supporters than Conservative Party supporters. Some 19 per cent of Labour supporters said it was important, compared with 12 per cent of Tory supporters.
A graph accompanying the poll findings shows that the importance of education in the eyes of the public has plummeted since May 1997, when Tony Blair’s Labour Party won the general election after campaigning for “education education education” and nearly half of people felt it was an important issue facing Britain.
Since then, the lowest point came in May 2009, when only 9 per cent of people said education was important.
Jonathan Simons, director of policy and advocacy at the Varkey Foundation, said: “People can only worry about so many things at once. As certain things become more important, by default other things become less important.”
In response to questions such as those posed by Ipsos MORI, nearly everyone would mention a maximum of three issues, he said, meaning that if the NHS and Brexit were constantly hitting headlines there was limited “space” in people’s minds for education.
He added that, historically, education has been “a mid-tier issue”. Apart from some notable exceptions, such as Labour’s former education secretary Ed Balls, education secretaries have nearly always tended to be younger, up-and-coming politicians, or people heading towards the end of their careers, he said.
Mr Simons could only see education reappearing high up people’s agendas in the event of a “long, sustained” campaign by Prime Minister Theresa May that lasted for several months and resulted in much stronger media coverage of the issues facing schools.
Sarah Kitchen, research director in the children and young people team at NatCen Social Research, tweeted that the findings may be down to the fact that education has a direct impact on fewer people.